Hi everyone, is there anything that comes to mind when you hear the date February 3rd? It is probably not very well known in the U.S.A., but in Japan, they have a traditional event called Setsubun (to be exact, it is almost always on February 3rd, but rarely on February 2nd or 4th. We will explain why later). Anyway, let's learn about Setsubun today.
If you are Japanese or are familiar with the Japanese culture, you probably know that Setsubun is the day you do mamemaki bean-throwing, bean-eating, and eating ehoumaki (a type of sushi roll). However, there are probably not many people who know the origin of Setsubun.
After reading this, you will be able to learn more about this event and you will want to celebrate it with your family and friends on February 3rd this year. You will also be introduced to bean items sold at Maido, so check it out.
Gift with purchase from Saturday 1/27 - if you buy beans or rice crackers with beans for Setsubun, you will get an oni Japanese demon mask for bean-throwing!
What is Setsubun?
Setsubun translates to seasonal division. As noted above, Setsubun this year is Saturday, February 3rd. In the lunisolar calendar, the new moon closest to Risshun, which falls on Sunday, February 4th this year, is the first day of the new year, and since it is the beginning of the new year, a Setsubun event is generally held on the day before Risshun.
So, what exactly is Setsubun? Generally speaking, it is an event to drive away evil spirits and wish for good health. Since ancient times, it has been believed that evil spirits easily enter at the change of seasons. Also, it is still cold in early February, so you can easily get sick, hence the event called tsuina has been held to purge evil spirits and pray for good health for the year to come.
Originally from China, tsuina is said to have been held as a court ritual on New Year's Eve during the Heian period (794-1185), when the continental culture was widely introduced to Japan. This is a ritual to drive away evil spirits, and an Onmyoji, a specialist in magic and divination that was one of the classifications of civil servants belonging to the Bureau of Onmyo in ancient Japan's ritsuryo system, would come to the shrine to purify the shrine of evil spirits and calamities.
There is an ancient description of this ceremony in the Zoku Nihonshoki, an imperially-commissioned Japanese history text, as a ritual to drive away plague and evil spirits. The ritual of tsuina as a court event gradually disappeared, and was no longer held in the Edo period (1603-1867). However, the ritual was spread and took root among the common people as Setsubun, an event to drive away oni demons by throwing beans and wishing for good health and good fortune.
In 2021, Setsubun was held on February 2nd for the first time in 124 years since 1897. In 1984, it was on February 4th, and 2021 was the first year in 37 years since then that Setsubun was on a day other than February 3rd.
This is related to the leap year that occurs once every 4 years. Originally, the word Setsubun meant to divide the seasons as mentioned, and originally referred to one day before all of the Nijushisekki, Risshun, Rikka, Risshu, and Ritto, which are the beginning days of the seasons.
The Nijushisekki are based on the movement of celestial bodies and are determined by the position of the sun and the earth, with Risshun being the day when the solar ecliptic diameter is 315 degrees. The orbital cycle is not exactly a year, but rather a gradual deviation, which is balanced by setting a leap year with an extra day every 4 years.
Setsubun is usually on February 2nd in the year following a leap year. Since this year 2024 is a leap year, Setsubun in 2025 will be on February 2nd.
Setsubun is an event to drive away evil spirits and pray for good health, but why do people throw beans?
Since ancient times, Japanese people have believed in the existence of words and spirits, giving meaning to words and their spiritual power, and incorporating them into their daily lives. It is said that the beans were first sown in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), and there is a theory that the origin of the beans is to destroy the oni demon's eye, as beans in Japanese is mame, and it can mean oni demon's eye in some Kanji, chinese characters used in Japan. In addition, beans symbolize one of the five grains (rice, wheat, hie millet, awa millet, and beans), and the Japanese, being an agricultural people, have believed that gods dwell in these grains.
Officially, the beans used for Setsubun are roasted the day before, placed in a masu wooden container, and placed on a Shinto altar. If possible, it is even better if a purification ceremony is held. If beans are considered sacred, this practice makes sense. The reason for using roasted beans is to prevent sprouts from appearing later.
If sprouting were to occur, people in the olden days feared that bad things would happen. To prevent this from happening, some people are said to have continued to roast the beans until they turned black. There is also a theory that the word iru, which means frying, is derived from another Japanese word iru, which means shooting (the oni demon's eye). And the word mame can mean good health as well as beans.
It is common to use roasted soybeans for bean-throwing, but in some areas, they are not used. In northern Japan, such as Niigata, Fukushima, and Hokkaido prefectures, as well as in southern Japan within Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures, peanuts are often used instead. In regions with deep snow in northern Japan, it is difficult to pick up soybeans that have been thrown outside because they are buried under snow. In Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures in southern Japan, as they grow a lot of peanuts, they use them. Also, peanuts seem to be familiar to people in Niigata prefecture since a large quantity of peanuts were imported there after World War II. Incidentally, in Yamagata prefecture, also in the north, the local confectionery Denroku-mame is overwhelmingly popular.
Oni Demon Masks and Soybeans in a Masu Wooden Container
How do you throw beans for Setsubun?
It is not a matter of throwing as hard as possible, but rather, there is a proper rule. Originally, bean-throwing is said to be the role of the patriarch of the family, but nowadays it is often done by toshi-otoko or toshi-onna, people who were born in the year with the same sign on the Chinese Zodiac as the current year's, as well as by those who have yakudoshi or calamitous years, the ages that in Japan are traditionally believed to be unlucky.
Now, let's take a look at the proper way to perform the bean-throwing ceremony, in the following order. (Different regions have different customs, but the following is what is considered most common.)
1. The day before the bean-throwing ceremony, roasted beans should be placed in a masu wooden container and offered to a Shinto altar. If you do not have a shrine, you can place the beans on a piece of white paper and offer them at somewhere high.
2. On the day of Setsubun, it is best to do the bean-throwing ceremony at night, as oni demons are said to come at ushitora-gongyo, between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. The best time for bean-throwing is between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. It is said that it is official to hold the masu wooden container containing the beans in the left hand, around the chest, and to throw them with the right hand as in the underhanded throw.
First, open the front door, windows, doorways, etc., and throw the beans, starting from the back room, in order to drive the oni demons out, while saying "Oni wa soto! (Demons go outside!)" to drive the oni demons out of the house. When you are finished, be sure to close the door immediately to keep the demons out and the good fortune in.
3. Then, say "Fuku wa uchi! (Fortune comes inside!)" and throw the beans toward the inside of the room (Fuku means fortune in Japanese). The entrance should come last. The order and direction of the bean-throwing ceremony differs from region to region.
4. After the bean-throwing ceremony is over, eat one more bean than your age to ward off bad luck for the year. These beans are called toshitori-mame , and they should be eaten by the whole family, if possible. Those who do not like beans or those who have the age more than the number of beans you can eat can drink fuku-cha (fortune tea) instead. This is a tea with 3 lucky beans (3 is a lucky number) and salted kombu kelp, and umeboshi pickled plums etc. for good luck. It is recommended because it is easy to make, just by putting beans and pouring boiling water from a pot.
With this process, the bean-throwing ceremony is over. Your new year will surely be a better one after this ceremony.
Salted Kombu Kelp
What is eaten on Setsubun?
The common thing to eat for Setsubun is roasted beans as you know it already, but other food differ from region to region. What kind of food would they eat?
Ehomaki is now a staple of Setsubun, but it originated in Osaka. People face the direction of blessings on Setsubun and silently eat a thick sushi roll called futomaki to the end while making a wish. It is said that the 7 ingredients of the futomaki should be chosen in honor of the 7 gods of good fortune, and also in the hope that they will bring in good fortune. It is also believed that the futomaki is a kanabo, a spiked or studded two-handed war club, left behind by oni demons, and eating it is said to mean exterminating oni demons. The direction of blessing in 2024 is slightly east-northeast（東北東）.
Oni Demons with Kanabo
Konnyaku, rich in dietary fiber, has long been eaten on Setsubun and other important days of the year as a food to cleanse the inside of the body. In Shikoku regioun, konnyaku eaten on Setsubun is called sunaoroshi, which means to discharge toxins from the body.
Konnyaku Noodles We Offer
Kenchin-jiru is a soup with many ingredients such as daikon radish, carrot, and gobo burdock. Originally a vegetarian dish, it was eaten because it went well with the Setsubun event to ward off evil spirits. The custom is said to exist mainly in parts of the Kanto region.
Setsubun Soba Noodles
Although not very familiar, soba eaten on Setsubun was called toshikoshi-soba (New Year's Eve soba) in the Edo period (1603-1867), and was popular nationwide as something to eat on Setsubun. There are various theories, but it is believed to be eaten for good luck, as the noodles are easy to break and can ward off bad luck. In Nagano prefecture and Izumo region of Shimane prefecture, where soba is famous, soba is still eaten on Setsubun.
Whale is eaten on Setsubun because there are many whaling bases in Yamaguchi prefecture, and whale is a well-established local dish there. It is considered eating a large whale brings good luck. It is associated with the wish that your aspirations will be big and you will grow up big in reference to the big whale. In particular, the highest quality part of whale meat called obake is eaten as sashimi.
In areas where barley is cultivated, many families used to offer barley rice to the gods and Buddha as an expression of gratitude for the harvest. This was done at New Years and Setsubun, and especially on Setsubun, barley rice was eaten with sardines. It is said that the custom of eating barley rice is still practiced today.
In western Japan, such as Kyoto, people eat sardines to ward off bad luck. It is said that the distinctive smell of sardines and the smoke from roasting sardines repel oni demons. As for sardines, there is also a custom of decorating the entranceway with sardines called Hiiragi Iwashi.
We will introduce the recipe for ehomaki in the next blog post. Stay tuned!
There is a lot of food items, housewares, stationery, and gifts available at the store and our online store, Maido! Kairashi Shop, where you can place your order for shipping or store pickup! Happy shopping. :)